Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Review: Stellar Cartography

In last couple of years there has been a big resurgence in Star Trek "non-fiction", with everything from starship manuals, language, and history books, to more whimsical art, and comedic interludes. It's been over a decade though since, Star Charts, the last Star Trek maps book, so I was very excited earlier this year, when Stellar Cartography: The Starfleet Reference Library was announced. Here's what I think of it upon its arrival:

The first thing you'll notice about Stellar Cartography when you get your hands on it, after noting it's a pretty hefty volume, is that it's much more than a book. What you get is a folding box (with a nifty magnetic panel to keep it all neat when it's closed up), with the actually book held in the center (with a little ribbon behind it to make it easy to pop out from its boxed in holding place). There are two envelopes on the panels either side, each of which hold five maps printed on sheets a smidge over 60x90cm. The book is written by Larry Nemecek, with the maps illustrated by Ian Fullwood, Geoffrey Mandel, and Ali Ries.

Stellar Cartography's contents

Just the experience of open this up and unfurling all the maps is pretty fun, but also a practical way of keeping the whole set together; in contrast to the pretty pointless bookstand-thing with last year's Federation: The First 150 Years. In common with the Federation book, this set is built upon the conceit of being a hard-copy reproduction of information retrieved in-universe from Memory Alpha. The present day is shortly after the Hobus supernova in 2387, although the maps are dated up to 2386, so they don't have to take into account any fallout from the destruction of Romulus.

The book is basically a guide to each of the maps in the set. Each map is reproduced as a two page spread, often slightly differently from the sheet maps, with more or less notation, and/or cropped into a particular section. Two pages then follow discussing what each map depicts, and giving wider historical context. What this book does not do is give the same type of overview of the entire galaxy, and explanation of spacey stuff, that Star Charts did. Star Charts had a lot of information detailing things like how sectors work, what the different types of planet and star are, and more diagrams and details of specific planets and systems. This new book seems to be more about the history of local space, using the maps as a window to frame the subjects it discusses.

Continue after the jump for an overview of each map in the collection:

The first of the ten maps in the set (as ordered in the book at least), is an impressionist overview of local space, purportedly made by an Andorian artist in 2386. It's quite an attractive abstract artwork, but also accurately reinterprets the boarders of all the major interstellar powers, which are given in more detail on other maps. It's splashy and bold, and even if you had no idea what it represents it still looks interesting, which would make an ideal display piece; it means something if you want it to, but also just looks good -  If I were going to frame any of the maps in the set, it would probably be this one.

The overlap on the two quadrant maps
There are a pair of maps giving us a close look at the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. These are portrait format, but if you lined them up right, displayed next to each other they create one huge landscape map of the Federation and its neighbours. Unfortunately both maps feature a small slither of space on the adjoining side of the Alpha/Beta boarder, so everything either side is duplicated. That means if you did want to display both maps together you'd need to do a bit of surgery to remove the overlap; all the labels either side are positioned in a way that doesn't cross the boarder, so it would be possibly to cut off the excess on one side and line them up. Alas the labels are not arranged in such a way that you can just overlap the maps unaltered, as they then cover up labels further in. It's a real shame this interface wasn't thought through more, as surely the main benefit of having these separate maps of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants is that you can position them next to each other for one massive map of local space.

Like all the maps in this set, these are built upon the layout of space established in the previous Star Charts book, with a few extra locations added in later seasons of Enterprise. Curiously while the position of Hobus (the star that went supernova and destroyed Romulus in subspace shockwave, as seen in nuTrek stories) has been established in other maps in the set, it is not marked on Beta Quadrant map. The look of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant maps is a little simplified from the Star Charts format, the stars are marked with twinkling star icons, rather than giving technical information about the star-types, and there are just sector grid-lines very faintly marked, no other information on trade routes and such like. This leaves the maps a lot less busy, so they work nicely for a general overview of the quadrants.

Details from the Federation's south, including Vanguard.
My favourite map in the set does retain all that extra information from Star Charts, and a whole lot more. The History of the United Federation of Planets map encompasses pretty much all of local space, a slightly wider view than that given on the Alpha/Beta maps, with a bigger chunk of the more distant parts of the Federation in the galactic south included.

This map is bursting with information; I've spent a long time looking around, taking in every detail, not just of boarders and stars, but many different journey lines marked in, noting the paths taken by various ships of historical note. It's a bit like a treasure hunt looking at this map, my favourite find was locating Starbase 47: Vanguard, which has snuck in from the novel series. Also marked is the original boarder of the Federation at its founding, a tiny area of space in the sea of blue of the 24th century Federation. While much of the content of the map is carried over from Star Charts, it's a completely different experience reading it on one sheet, a much better experience I'd say. There are also some significant additions, with the Delphic Expanse (from the third season of Enterprise), and Hobus, now marked in.

Around the edges of the map are some inset sections with additional information. Down the right side the Founding planets of the Federation are all detailed, with information like population and capital cities listed. At the bottom right there is a key, explaining how the map marks star types, different types of starbases and such. In the bottom left there is an overview of the galaxy, showing all four quadrants and noting various significant locations and journeys taken. And top left is a blown up detail of part of the map, showing more information around the more densely charted area of space around Earth and Cardassian space.

Vulcan and T'Khut
There is just one map in the set that focuses down to the scale of a single star system, specifically the Vulcan system. This is supposed to be a 4th century map, from the Time of Awakening. It marks all the stars in the trinary system, and three planets. There is also a disk around the star, which I assume is meant to be the system's asteroid belt. Absent, despite being referenced in the book, is the planetoid Delta Vega, as seen in nuTrek. This is another really attractive map, another one I think would look fantastic on the wall as just art, with all it's swirly background, and pretty Vulcan script. It is not however an especially practical map; none of the orbits of the planets are marked, which makes it basically impossible to read any information about the system from what you can see. You can't tell there is any relationship between Vulcan and T'khut, or where any of the other bodies in the system sit in relation to each other. Is it worth sacrificing that information to make this sheet look good? Maybe, it is very pretty, but it definitely fails as a map.

Details around Deep Space 9
There are two maps in the set that specifically chart conflicts. The Dominion War map is great, it makes understanding the entire conflict so easy. It focuses in on the area of space around the Cardassian Union, stretching just far enough into the Beta Quadrant to show the nearest boarders of Klingon and Romulan Space, and the Federation core worlds. The only locations marked are those specifically involved in the war. All the locations are marked with various signs indicating battles and skirmishes, victories and defeats. There are also three inset maps giving the details of some of the most significant battles in the war.

One of the Romulan War battles
The other conflict map is the Romulan War. In a similar fashion (but with Enterprise computer style design, and in portrait orientation), the map charts the area of space from Earth to Romulus. More local stars are marked on this map, but mostly very faintly, with only the worlds most directly affected by the war shown more boldly. The details of the Romulan War are based on how it was described in Federation: The First 150 Years, and like the Dominion War map, there are three inset diagrams detailing specific battles. I find this map much less engaging than the Dominion War one; it's a smaller conflict, so the map doesn't have as much to say, and it's also not connecting up dots from multiple episodes in the TV series in the same way. I really wish they had given us a map of Enterprise's year in the Delphic Expanse instead, that would have been far more enlightening.

The remaining three maps are all meant to be from alien origins. There's a Klingon map from 2266 (the height of the conflict with the Federation), a Romulan map from 2366, and a Cardassian map from 2364 (before the withdraw from Bajor). All show us how each empire considered its own space at significant points in their history, and all three are styled appropriately for each race. The Romulan and Cardassian maps are presented in both the native languages and English, while the Klingon one is entirely in Klingon, with an English version of the map included in the book. I guess the idea with all of these is to change things up from the Federation styling and focus of the other maps, while also giving us maps of each Empire, and to that end they are wholly successful. I'm not hugely into Cardassian or Klingon design, so they don't especially appeal to me aesthetically, but I think the Romulan one is quite attractive.

So that's all ten maps. It was after going through them the first time something dawned on me: Where the heck are the Delta and Gamma Quadrants? Despite all the maps in the set being listed prior to publication, I hadn't realised until I got it, what wasn't included. DS9 is at least quite well serviced by the excellent Dominion War map, but Voyager fans seem rather left out without some Delta Quadrant love. The Voyager section of Star Charts was my favourite part of the book too, with it joining up all the territories of the recurring aliens, and charting Voyager's jumps and such on the journey home; it would have been amazing to have that as one long sheet. The lack of maps of both Quadrants also seems an odd omission from an in-universe perspective on the concept of the collection; you'd think the rare mapping of both distant quadrants would be a stellar cartographical treasure!

Those curious omissions aside this is such a great product. It's all about the maps; having them as big sheets, rather than broken down into pages of a book as before, is a wholly different experience; it's much easier to see how things are arranged from one area of space to another, much easier to take in the entire picture. We get a good variety of maps here, from the beautiful art pieces, and aliens maps, through to the most information dense History of the Federation map, and the enlightening Dominion War map.

The book in this set is very much a guide to the specifics of each map included, and isn't a replacement for Star Charts; that older book still has the upper hand in terms of giving an overview of how space works in the Trekverse. I would imagine the new book does make things much more accessible for a more casual Trek fan, as it gives a lot more context than Star Charts did. Had there been no book at all though, this would still be more than worth getting, just for all the brilliant maps.


Fox said...

Hm... much more positive than my own review of the game. I very much seem to be in the minority, as the "book" is quite highly rated on Amazon. If you don't mind me posting, here's my review on

Basic run-down:
...5/5 for production value.
...3/5 for map quality.
...1/5 for content.

8of5 said...

I think at least some of your criticisms are no fault of this publication, but the universe it is built upon. The alien capital planets all being near Federation boarders for example is just down to what we've seen in the series.

You also seem to argue that Star Trek cannot be cohesive, while demanding publications like this try and make it so - Which actually, it does, particularly with how it has tried to explain everything in the Dominion War, and manage to squeeze the Delphic Expanse into local space.

Some of your issues I share though, as I've elaborated on above. I had an interest twitter exchange with Larry Nemecek last night discussing some of the points. He'd be up for doing some of the things you and I have suggested in a second collection, but had to prioritise certain things for this collection; making sure it covered the basics and had broad appeal to the TOS/TNG bias of popular Trek fandom.

Dwight Williams said...

Some of Fox's suggestions are things that the Star Wars Atlas authors and designers - particularly re: population density, different timeframes, and so on - have already taken and run with to a considerable extent.

I'm wondering if terms of license didn't have a part to play in the results we got.

Hoping for a "Novel-'verse"-specific edition of this down the road...